Local legislators are leading an effort to come up with potential solutions to a problem receiving greater attention nationwide: school shootings.
State Sens. John Albers, Kay Kirkpatrick and Fran Millar, Republicans who represent parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, are serving on a Senate committee meeting coming up with ideas for school safety improvements that will be presented in a report in December. The committee, which is chaired by Albers, has met at several schools across the state, kicking off with a June meeting at North Springs Charter High School in Sandy Springs.
Although school shootings have been occurring for decades, two of the deadliest occurred this year in Sante Fe, Texas, and Parkland, Fla. Those incidents inspired student-led movements calling for gun control measures and caused school districts to discuss new safety measures.
Albers and Kirkpatrick said they don’t know exactly what recommendations the committee may make in its final report. But they said they will generally fall into three areas: prevention, building security and response, and possible new legislation or funding.
Kirkpatrick said she views prevention as vital, but possibly the most difficult.
Adding more door locks and putting armed officers in schools are “straightforward, but expensive,” Kirkpatrick said. Trying to figure out how to intervene with a possibly troubled or violent student is much more complex, she said.
“That is a whole other level beyond just requiring clear backpacks,” Kirkpatrick said.
Training teachers, counselors and school nurses to recognize those signs is important, she said. Schools could also implement bullying prevention measures, Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick, who is a physician, said her profession has given her more interest in how to help “high-risk” students who are isolated or have a difficult home life.
“The difficult part is figuring out how to connect them to services without spotlighting them,” Kirkpatrick said.
She said she hopes to hear more presentations on prevention before they need to make their recommendations.
Strengthening the response to incidents may include adding budget funds for providing schools with trauma kits, which typically include tourniquets and bandages, Kirkpatrick said.
One idea not currently on the list is arming teachers, Kirkpatrick said. The committee has substantially discussed it, but police officers discouraged the idea in presentations, she said.
“When law enforcement comes in and people are waving guns around, they don’t know who’s who. It makes their job harder,” she said.
Albers said Georgia is fortunate to not have had a major school shooting incident, as many other states have. At the same many who have provided input to the committee say they want to be prepared, Albers said there is “certainly concern” from people who are afraid an attack could happen. He said he has his own concerns as a parent of a student attending Roswell High School.
Grace Truax, a student at Centennial High School, spoke at the Sandy Springs meeting and said she believes every student at her school has thought about what they would do in the event of a shooting.
“I run this drill quite frequently with myself, but I never know if I’ll survive,” Truax said, according to the meeting video.
Garry McGiboney, the Georgia Department of Education’s deputy superintendent of external affairs, said at that meeting that while many student violations are decreasing, bringing handguns onto school property is on the rise. Most of the handguns were brought from home, McGiboney said.
In the latest student survey, the department found that 88 percent of students know what to do during an emergency and 82 percent reported feeling safe at school.
However, the number that concerns McGiboney is that only 78 percent know an adult in school to ask for help. “If we don’t have the trust of the students to tell us what’s going on in the school, we’re operating blind,” he said.
Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone said at the meeting that he believed that discussing some type of gun control law is needed, according to a meeting video.
“Having school safety talks and not talking about gun legislation is probably like talking about the Civil War and not talking about slavery,” he said.
Sandy Springs Fire Chief Keith Sanders encouraged the committee to recommend safer school designs, such as having doors with no windows and creating better escape routes.
For a model of how to improve school safety, Albers said that they don’t have to look any farther than the Fulton County School District, which Albers’ district covers. He said they are talking with districts across the U.S., however.
“They have certainly been ahead of the curve,” Albers said of Fulton schools.
Fulton has implemented security measures such as locked front entrances, security cameras, a management system to record visitors and more school resource officers. It also is launching a mobile app that students can use to anonymously report incidents or concerns, Shannon Flounnory, Fulton school’s director of security, said during a presentation at an Aug. 6 Rotary Club of Sandy Springs meeting.
The Fulton school district now has 70 sworn officers, adding six earlier this year. The DeKalb County School District has 73 resource officers, with plans to hire 10 more by October, the district said.
The Fulton officers train with local law enforcement to coordinate on how to neutralize any active shooter threat, Flounnery said. But he also puts a focus on learning de-escalation and crisis intervention tactics.
“Often the tools officers need are not on their duty belt,” he said.
Despite the increased discussion about school security and the recent major shootings, Flounnery said students are not in more danger at school.
“Schools are still the safest place for kids to be. Without a doubt,” he said.